“So Easy” – Trashing Today’s Multilateralism

After a hurried return flight to Toronto, via San Francisco, I was trying to gather my thoughts and reflections on this last G20 Summit  in Los Cabos.  But before I could get there before I was “assaulted” by a piece from David Rothkopf currently the CEO and editor at large of Foreign Policy – For Multilateralism, Is This the Dark Moment Before the Dawn?”  This piece is the latest and clearest instance of what I call “opinionation” – or in other words  – opinion without much knowledge or data.  Not that I am  suggesting that David does not know about multilateralism.  Far from it (I guess I am saying he should know better).

Indeed David was a major official in the Clinton Administration in Deputy Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Policy and Development.  And he has been significantly involved in the beltway foreign policy crowd.  Furthermore David wrote his weekly column from Rio de Janeiro as he awaits  the Rio+20.

So what is the analysis about?  David is not just examining the success/effectiveness of the “high table” of global summitry – the G20 Leaders Summit; he is  reflecting on a wider swath of global summitry architecture though he employs the older term “multilateralism”.  He starts out commenting on the Rio+20, which Rothkopf is attending.  He says: “I am now attending, an event that is likely to be both one of the largest and least consequential in the history of the United Nations.”

But he then takes aim on global summitry more generally:

Our problem is not that the biggest powers are incapable of action to address current problems.  It’s that just when the promise of a new post – Cold War, post single power era of collaboration among nations seemed to be greatest, many of the big powers have revealed themselves to be unwilling to assume the responsibilities of true global leadership – of motivating, cajoling, inspiring, intimidating, confronting or blocking actions by other powers.  It’s not so much that we are in a G-Zero world [a term adopted and adapted from Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group] as it is the most of our leaders are zeroes.

And having identified “leaders” as the operative agent of failure he then frames the G20 Summit’s outcome this way:

One sign of this [this is the failure of President Obama] is the G-20 meeting in Los Cabos this week, which has an official agenda that is almost laughably remote from the big issue sof the day.  In the past year, the group has played a much smaller role than was envisioned at the height of the financial crisis – a reality that will be underscored as the reactive, last-minute agenda to address Europe’s continuing crisis dominates the meeting, mostly through a flurry of bilateral leader conversations on the perimeter of the official event.There will be strong language, lectures to Europeans and pushback from them, signs of the deepening tensions between the United States and Russia,  … and then will shift the main venue for  addressing the global economic crisis back to the G-7, the European Union itself, and the other fora that have supplanted the unwieldy G-20 over the past three years.

While David attacks all current multilateral settings he concludes with the position that things will get so bad that ultimately “Multilateralism will ultimately flourish not because it is more equitable but because we cannot solve global problems without it.”

Well I certainly agree with the final conclusion, I am not sure when that dire turning point will come.  Furthermore I think the evidence he draws on fails to see adequately the current multilateral efforts in tackling the challenges. Multilateralism is hard, messy and often achingly incremental.  But let me suggest that the evidence leads to a different evaluation than that proffered by David.

First on Rio+20. We have known for a long time that the universal model presented by the UN is an unworkable ineffective structural approach.  The legitimacy advocates claim that the universal model is the only mechanism – indeed I heard French President Hollande at his final press conference at Los Cabos advocating for the UN – I guess it is part of French Socialist equity.  And of course he was at a G20 Leaders Summit.  But there is no surprise with Rio+20 other than possibly there is likely to be an agreement at all.  Given that President Obama and his people were well aware of the results, it is no surprise that Obama and other leaders are taking a pass on this gathering.

But the existence of the G20 – the G7 before it – is no accident.  These informal multilateral institutions appeared exactly because of the failure of the universal treaty- defined institutions.  The legitimists will never go away – nor will their call for universal representation – but for effective multilateralism you will have to look elsewhere.

Now for the G20.  The critique by David of the Los Cabos meeting probably requires a longer answer than I’ll give here but let me suggest that a reading of the Los Cabos Declaration and the Action Plan suggest more forward work than David Rothkopf acknowledges.  The structure of global summitry is well beyond the Leaders getting together for less than 48 hours.  There is forward movement – assessments, plans, targets – by the G20 countries.  But it is not just the announcements by Leaders.  It is in the meetings, reports, and draft standards of the many tasked organizations.

But speaking of announcements – the statements by Leaders – especially China’s President Hu Jintao (see the written interview with Reforma) – his urging on the G20 to act collectively –  from a Chinese leader – suggests that the leadership takes the collective behavior seriously.  Are these perfect leaders. Nope.  Do they bend to domestic pressures more than they should – probably – whether it’s Merkel or Obama or whomever.  But they are definitely not zeroes.  Way too easy and rather flippant, David Rothkopf.

I buy the Leaders commitment from the Los Cabos Declaration:

Despite the challenges we all face domestically, we have agreed that multilateralism is of even greater importance in the current climate, and remains our best asset to resolve the global economy’s difficulties.

A huge success – no – but multilateralism – or global summitry – in action and the best means for overcoming the challenges – and it is happening now.

Image Credit: Seacoast Properties

In the Game but Wounded – The G20 at Los Cabos



A slightly bitter gathering of G20 Leaders.  The tone was set yesterday when the Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, took a question from Toronto Sun Media reporter David Akin to push back against North American criticism of the eurozone’s inability to solve the economic crisis in Europe or to have North American funds to buttress the IMF intervention fund.

As we roll up to the release of the final communique this afternoon in Los Cabos several major news outlets have been quoting from the “leaked” draft communique.  In fact in a Chris Giles piece from the FT Giles suggested that the communique was finalized before the Leaders gathering.  Now we are aware of course that officials prepare the draft communique well in advance – often with bracketed phrases – but a finaled communique without last minute emendations as a result of leaders discussions – and indeed agreements/not agreements – would not be useful.  I am not assuming that it is any different at this leaders gathering.  Indeed other sources have suggested that the communique is being hammered out as I write this post.

The basic outline – which I doubt will change suggests that though leaders pledge support for European efforts  – “take all necessary policy measures to safeguard the single currency” – and to further express the need for growth agenda policies, subject to individual country circumstances – the communique may well lack specifics.  That would be an unfortunate turn.

These comuniques can be “freighted” with rhetorical phrases urging collective action of one sort or another, but success at the summit is determined by specific targets or policies that G20 countries commit to and are published.

On the positive side BRICS leaders at the margin of the G20 summit have agreed to add financial pledges to the IMF intervention fund.  The pledges could include $10 billion from India, Brazil and Russia and then $43 billion from China – a large amount though Japan is committing $60 billion to the fund.

Less positively is the description and details of the action plan for growth promised since Cannes Summit.  Though there is mention, at the moment, the details remain unclear.  Chris Giles has this to say:

G20 statements have pledged to take actions on growth and jobs based on individual countries following their own preferred paths for nearly two years, so the main interest will be in the precise commitments made by the large eurozone economies to restore the sovereign debt crisis.

So we wait now to see the final communique.


Lightening Mood at G20 Leaders Summit Los Cabos


The gloom so reminiscent of the collective mood of  officials and Leaders at Cannes seemed to lift this morning following the Greek election results.  Even the press conference from EU officials Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council and Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission seemed energetic and forward leaning.  The Greeks were urged  to move quickly to form a government and proceed forward on implementing what had previously been agreed to by earlier Greek authorities. Reference was made to the upcoming European Summit at the end of the month with the officials speaking of the plan to raise the levels of banking and institutional integration – as well as fiscal integration, in the Eurozone.

So the warmth of averting disaster filled the room and extended to the audience of journalists and other media types.  Only the Canadian Sun media reporter caused disquiet raising the ire of President Barroso with a critique of European actions by the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. This animated the generally downbeat European official, Barroso who responded angrily to the reporter’s question insisting that Europe did not need lessons from anyone and declaring that reform by democratic countries – all 27 of the EU – takes time.  And, while Europe had to take care of its internal imbalances others – read that as China and the US – had to take care of their external imbalances.

And that, it seems to me, was the unspoken problem left on the table by the European officials.  The G20 Leaders Summit has suffered from a breach in the timeline of results between the Leaders plans and goals and the incremental results from the tasking on medium-term reforms from the many international and transgovernmental regulatory networks and organizations – the ministers, working groups, IMF, FSB, IOSCO, etc.

But added to this timeline rupture there is now a second.  It is apparent that the EU officials are describing a timeline for reform that stretches out for months if not years.  I expect that global markets and non-European officials andLeaders  will not accept such a timeline – even in the name of democracy and democratic accountabilty.  It could get very fractious and turbulent.

Timeline ruptures are politically serious to the legitimacy and success of the G20 Leaders Summit.


Leaders and Outcomes in the Los Cabos G20 Summit

So I am sitting here in the freezing cold of one of the press rooms at the G20 Summit. I could go outside, of course, and I certainly won’t be freezing any longer.

In any case enough of the weather report. On my trip down here – Toronto – San Francisco – Los Cabos, I kept mulling over in my mind Dan Drezner’s assertion of the role of leadership and change. It is not surprising that I would, I guess, given my somewhat wonkish existence and in particular given that I and my colleagues fly all over the world chasing various global summitry settings waiting for the conclusion of these assemblages.

Well Dan has repeted several times – most recently in his June 6th post “These aren’t the leaders your’re looking for …“that leadership can only be infuential at the margin, or as he stated:

… leadership matters on the margins – but power and purpose matter one whole hell of a lot more.

Well I am not quite sure what to make of it. (Of course I could go talk to him – but that would be no fun.) I suppose what Dan is suggesting that large strategic national policy is like a great ship of state moving on a pre-determined course where leadership has the capacity to only correct in minor ways the principal policy trajectory of the nation. In particular in the current circumstances of many of the G20 countries today, the arrangement of interests and political coaltions dramatically constrain today’s leadership.

So while leadership is not irrelevant, this apears not in any sense to reflect the ‘great man’ theory of leadership. Now I suppose the counter to this defined trajectory of national policy is the notion of the Titanic and the iceberg. Clearly the Titanic’s direction was set but an alert pilot or captain could have made a last minute correction that could have avoided the tragedy that continues to fascinate so many observers. And in that failed moment – at least for the Titanic – that small course correction – as frantic as it might have been at the wheel house – would have produced great change in the outcome.

So operating at the margin may be more consequential than I think Dan is implying. Leadership may in fact produce significant and major change even in the face of power and purpose. There is of course no guarantee that such action will occur. But don’t discount leadership even in the constrained circumstances that such leadership finds itself today in most G20 countries. Let’s watch the G20 gathering to see whether the leaders grasp and act on the fact of the approaching iceberg.

Approaching Los Cabos – Waiting for Godot


[Editor: Apologies to all for the lengthy silence. But graduation of my older daughter took precedence.  And let me just say that Princeton University knows how to conduct a graduation. Believe me!]

Every rescue effort brings momentary relief to world markets.  Within days, however, the  good feeling drains away. Worry returns and leaders then describe and urge the next step to solve the crisis.  We move from Greece, to Spain and now to Italy and then back.  The Eurozone crisis continues – at a low boil – but a boil nonetheless.

As significant time has passed on the Eurozone crisis, we are now faced with yet another G20 Leaders Summit in the midst of a Euro crisis.  In fact the Greece national elections will occur just before the convening of the Leaders Summit – shades of Cannes all over again.  And so the Los Cobos G20 Leaders Summit faces the fate that we experienced with the G20 in Cannes and the G8 in Camp David – a crisis in Europe that is likely to occupy and distract officials and G20 Leaders occupying, we presume, much of Leaders face time notwithstanding the agenda prescribed by the host country.

We are even more likely at the conclusion of this Summit – as opposed to earlier ones –  to receive a round of media condemnation for the distraction from the agenda, the lack of outcomes for the Summit and no doubt a round scolding for the Leaders’ inability to solve the crisis.

And at one level who can blame the media.  This slow motion Euro crisis results in each global summitry meeting “kicking the can down the road” on whatever agenda the host has prepared for the summit.  The problem is that the excuse wears thin after several Summits and it is unlikely that the media will be placated that the next G20 Summit is likely to be more productive – after so much delay – not to mention that the next Summit could be well be over a year away somewhere – and hosted in Russia.

To parry such “negativism” leaders and officials have begun to urge the G20 to not let the agenda to be set aside by the “hurly burly” of the European crisis.  Thus, for example, German officials have been urging a focus beyond Europe – now that of course is hardly a surprise since a crisis focus can only lead to greater pressure on Germany to take bolder action to end this seemingly “never-ending story”.  Thus Reuters reported that senior German officials urged that:

The euro zone will surely be a topic, but as Europeans we also want to talk about other themes related to the global economy that go beyond the euro zone, for example budget consolidation in the United States, currency flexibility in China and structural reforms in emerging markets. … We think when talking about global growth it is important to look beyond the euro zone, not to the discussion to Europe.

German officials also expect to see action – long promised – to provide for the strengthening of the global economy over the medium-to-longer term, but still not likely to provide concrete stimulus plans by the G20 Leaders.

Mexican President Calderon too has spoken out expressing his hope that this action plan will form an important deliverable for this Summit:

(The action plan) will not only include measures to confront and resolve the European crisis, which is ultimately an economic crisis, but will also put forward concrete measures on public policy in key areas in the realms of tax, finance and monetary policy, which will help to boost global growth in the long term.

Chinese officials have also spoken out for the need to tackle not just the European crisis but make progress on on financial reform and push forward on international financial governance reform.  Brazil has raised the spectre of even more conflict suggesting that it may cap its overall assistance to the IMF fund if there are not firmer efforts to address the quota and share issues – though Brazil is aware, as are the others, that the US Administration is not prepared to amend the IMF formula by way of legislative changes till after the November US election.

Forecasts are thus not bright for the Los Cabos gathering.  The transition of the G20 Summit to a permanent meeting targeted on more medium-term issues – whether financial regulatory reform or on macroeconomic issues – seems to have faltered.  It may be inevitable that leaders will be drawn to, or pushed, to deal with the issue of the moment.  But the inability to get out from under the European crisis over an extended period of time has eroded, or is eroding, a sense of  effectiveness of this Summit.  This is not good for global governance overall.

As my colleague Dan Drezner says –  “Am I missing something”.

Image Credit:  Government of Mexico